To Stop Killer Drones, Ukraine Upgrades Ancient Flak Guns With Consumer Cameras And Tablets

Old weapons are being dredged out of European armories to aid Ukraine’s military in its struggle to repel Russia’s invasion and withstand the onslaught of missiles and kamikaze drones plummeting down on Ukrainian cities. And Ukrainians are apparently finding inventive ways to affordably improve their effectiveness using commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) technology.

The social media account Ukraine Weapons Tracker first drew attention to photos of an air defense training exercise posted by Eastern Command of Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces on Dec. 7. showing a 20-millimeter Zastava M75 anti-aircraft gun visibly fitted with two CCTV cameras made by Chinese company Hikvision to serve as thermal and daylight sights. The cameras send their video output to a consumer tablet mounted on a flexible arm stand made by Dallas-based company North Bayou for easy viewing by the gunner.

These are all components which a civilian could buy online with relative ease. On U.S. Amazon, the North Bayou arm costs $29.90 dollars, while various Hikvision CCTV cameras of similar-looking configuration can be bought in the low hundreds to low thousands of dollars. (Hikvision, which is state-owned, is under U.S. sanction due to security concerns and its role surveilling ethnic minorities in internment camps in Xinjiang province.)

The cannon itself, first spotted in Ukrainian service late in October, is a Yugoslavian license-built copy of the Spanish Hispano-Suiza HS.804 automatic anti-aircraft cannon used in World War II. Its 110-millimeter-length shells are effective out to roughly a mile, and can use 10-shell magazines or 20-round ammo drums. Likely, these and similar Zastava M55 cannons were donated by or purchased from Croatia or Slovenia.

Why World War II-style flak guns are making a comeback

Kyiv has become especially interested in short-range air defense weapons as an affordable counter to Russia’s use of cheap Iranian-built Shahed-136 kamikaze drones to attack Ukrainian cities, particularly their energy infrastructure with the aim of freezing civilians in winter cold.

The Iranian-built drones are slow—at max 120 miles per hour, roughly the speed of a World War I biplane fighter—and most get shot down before hitting their targets. But they’re cheap, numerous and still causing plenty of damage, so Kyiv is scrambling for affordable air defenses, including old-fashioned light anti-aircraft guns. And because such automatic cannons can only defend a very limited area, a lot of them are needed to cover potential targets.

While rapid-firing flak guns reaped a heavy toll on low-flying ground attack aircraft in World War II, most combatants found individual 20-millimeter guns like the M75 lacked satisfactory hitting power and range as warplanes increased in speed and sported better armor protection. Multiple-barrel gun mounts were therefore preferred, as well as heavier 37- or 40-millimeter cannons. Indeed, a common setup for Zastava’s 20-millimeter cannons is in a triple gun mount.

Ukraine and Russia both extensively use the double-barrel ZU-23 cannon. Finland is known to have transferred an unknown quantity of its ZU-23 clone to Ukraine called the 23-Itk-61, while the UK also is reportedly giving 100 anti-aircraft guns of unspecified type.

These weapons are all less capable than the 30 sophisticated German-built Gepard anti-aircraft vehicles equipped with radars and dual 35-millimeter cannons, which have reportedly proven very successful against drones and missiles. But such valuable systems must be reserved only for priority areas.

Still, when supplied with the single-barreled M75, Ukrainians are apparently trying to compensate by improving accuracy and night capability through use of the camera sights.

While the explosive-laden Shahed-136s fortunately are unarmored and slow, hitting them in the brief window of opportunity a point-defense gun has still poses a challenge. Russian cruise missiles flying at airliner speeds (450-600 miles per hour) are even harder targets.

Improvised weapon upgrades for territorial defense

Another interesting hardware mashup spotted by bloggers in photos of the exercise near Dnipro was a 12.7-millimeter DShKM heavy machine gun, license-built in Romania, fitted with an Adder TS35-640 thermal imaging scope by Arizona-based AGM Global Vision, which can be attached to weapons on a three centimeter-diameter tube.

The Adder, currently priced at $4,194, has up to 8x magnification on a 12.5×10 degree field, and has functions for videorecording and transmitting data via wi-fi.

Romania’s Kujir Mechanical Plant (UMC) started building DShKMs in 2015. Romania has publicly given only non-lethal aid to Ukraine including body armor and fuel, but is believed to have been quietly providing some weapons from its reserves since the legislature passed a law this summer legalizing such transfers.

Effective against lightly armored vehicles, aircraft and personnel, the DShK was extensively used by Soviet forces in World War II—and then continued to see much combat action in places ranging from Vietnam to Northern Island and Afghanistan up to this very day.

Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces brigades, intended primarily for local-area defense but sometimes deployed more aggressively, have only limited, relatively dated heavy weapons at their disposal—a smattering of mortars, ZU-23s, venerable heavy machine guns like the Dushka, and rocket-propelled grenades.

The additional firepower, even if outdated, gives a bit more punch to these formations, particularly as they’re effective against personnel and vehicles on the frontline, while also boosting short-range air defense for units protecting civilian energy infrastructure. Such use of commercial of the shelf (COTS) technology looks like a creative way of improving their effectiveness at an acceptable cost.